Michelle Ladner: The Social Netmare

typewriterI have this recurring night terror. In it I finally write the book. The best book I can write. I query it. There’s real interest. I’m about to get a publishing contract. The operative word being about. Right when I’m preparing to sign my name on that dotted line, my almost Agent-Editor Googles me on a smart phone. There, in cyber-space Technicolor, she finds the irrefutable evidence of my failed wandering blogs, my listless website, every Facebook atrocity I’ve ever committed, and the droves upon droves of witless and useless Tweets I’ve posted because… well… my platform.

Broken and looking like a third world shanty after the flood waters have washed away all that is good and kind, there it is. My platform. In this night terror, Mr.-Mrs.-Agent-Editor looks down over his-her glasses and says, “Hm. I see your… erm… platform.” He-She makes that disparaging clicking noise with her tongue, yanks the contract away from my desperate sweaty fingers, and tells me, “It might’ve been a good story, but we don’t want your book after all. You’re not only socially awkward–which we expected, because you are a hermit-like writer who collects cats–you are digitally awkward beyond repair. That the Marketing Department can’t overlook… so neither can we.”

This is my Social Netmare.

As a normal person I feel a lot of pressure to have an Internet presence—to interact with my four hundred closest online acquaintances. As a writer, I go to conferences and feel indoctrinated to believe no debut writer can exist without a shining multi-faceted digital platform. You’re told you have to think about how you will market yourself as an author because the publishing company may not. Never mind that you have no idea which book you will sell and, even if you did, you have no idea what marketing label will be stuck on it. So that purple dragonfly landing gently on the last cursive letter of your name in a logo you paid good money for—that you used on your website, Facebook, Twitter, Blog, Tumblr, and business cards—doesn’t exactly coincide with the erotic serial killer thriller an agent said he’d represent. (Or maybe it does? But you don’t have insight or marketing degree to recognize the relevance and you can’t afford to pay someone to make it work).

Logos aside, there are entire panels at writing conferences dedicated to Twitter, Facebook and Blog presence, but you’d better be witty, interesting, and have something to say. I don’t know about all the other aspiring introverted writers out there, but I’m socially awkward so—generally speaking—I’m the only one laughing at my jokes. And I have a lot of interests that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other. It’s hard enough writing an elevator pitch for your newest manuscript, but I think it’s even harder to be clever, funny, relevant, and poignant in forty four characters or less. The pressure! Besides, if someone is laughing at something I said, it’s that uncomfortable laugh that tells me they’re only laughing at my social awkwardness. Add that to my divergent interests and my multitude of cat photos… well…most people looking at my platform are scratching their head, thinking, “WTF is this? She should’ve thought through her platform.”

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What they don’t realize is that’s all I think about any more. My Social Netmare. My platform. And how inadequate I am in the imagining and building of it—because I’m a creative writer, not a zany bandsaw wielding platform builder. You’d think the two are interchangeable, but surprisingly they are harder to reconcile than you think. Meanwhile, my exposed and unworthy platform—try as it might to shine—remains buck-naked and lacking all the necessary endowments.

But the Netmare doesn’t stop there. There’s the whole political and social correctness thing to tread around. Sometimes I just get tired of thinking in tributaries and preparing for every possible criticism and opposition. Heavens forbid if you do find success. Someone will dig up that Facebook post where you off-handedly said you wished you could stop eating babies as a joke because you had an extra glass of wine at dinner. Then you’re suddenly labeled a baby-eater. The publishing company cancels your next contract. Or, even worse, it DOESN’T! And you’re forever known as the baby-eater writer at Random Penguin. You then have to buy a special baby-eating jacket and wig to wear at book signings and conferences to promote your third baby-eating book, when all you really want is to burn the jacket and wig and write a romantic comedy with a talking bear in it.

The introvert in me just wants to razor my wrists.

The writer in me puzzles: Why? Why does this have to be so complicated?

But that’s just it, isn’t it? It doesn’t.

I believe that there is more writing and publishing advice out there than there are books in the world. And there is no way any one person can read and process them all. This doesn’t even take into account the different strokes for different folks aspect of all this. Is it important to have a platform? Certainly. To ignore that we live in a digital age is to ignore the fact that humans are capable of progress. But you don’t have to do it all. And if you aren’t good at it, it’s okay. Gutenberg never could’ve anticipated this.

Besides, people are going to judge you and make suppositions about you—baby-eater or not—because there is difference in the world and that’s just the nature of being social in it. But you can try, if you want, to get better at it.

But remember… if you are a writer living in your own Social Netmare the guiding principle is you must make time to write. And write well. Without the book, there’s no need for a social media presence. The platform has to come second. What I have come to realize is, in expending all my energy on the many complications of my Social Netmare, I abuse and neglect my writing time. Most of us do.

The best advice I’ve heard on forays into social networking as a writer is Don’t be a d*ck. Actually, that’s the second best advice, and I wish I could remember who said it. Unfortunately, everyone’s witticisms swim around my brain and get muddled—which makes me terrible at parties. The actual best advice, which is a combination of advices from several witty interesting people, is If you hate social networking or you hate certain aspects of it, then you don’t need to do it. Take that energy and time to write. Do what you like in the social arena. Do what you’d do anyway. But whatever you choose to do, you should do comfortably and happily, not begrudgingly. And write!

I still have the same Social Netmare. It doesn’t go away. Nor do I think it ever will. I’m a socially awkward introvert. The only thing I’m confident of is my own insecurities. But each time I awake from my night terror I try, first, to remember I’m a fiction writer and my lot in life is to make things more dramatic than they actually are. Second, I look at the bones of my shanty and the wreckage around it, pick something that works out of the mud, and throw something that doesn’t work away.

Just like a manuscript, the writer’s life and the emerging digital persona that comes along with it, is about editing and rewriting until you have something that works and is worth putting out into the world. It’s a bitter shame the world actually sees the red marks and margin comments of your digital presence—because it’s a work in progress, isn’t it? It’s hard to know who you are until you figure out who you are. But you have to be something until that lightning strike of brilliant revelation. I like to think, in the long run, seeing the edits is as good for the world as it is for the writer. Edits and rewrites—evolution—equals progress. Despite my Social Netmare.

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